Despite the enormous cost in Palestinian lives, the Israeli state is losing in every dimension of its struggle to crush Gaza argues John Rees
The killing is not over, the dead not yet buried, but it is already clear that something different is happening in this conflict between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. Perhaps for the first time ever the Israeli state is losing in every dimension of its struggle to crush Gaza.
The military balance
The military imbalance between the Palestinian resistance in Gaza and the Israeli state is so extreme that there can be no question of outright Palestinian victory, even of the defensive kind that Hezbollah achieved over the invading Israeli forces in Lebanon in 2006.
Israel is the most militarized power in the world, according to the Bonn Centre for International Conversion, and the 11thmost powerful military force on the planet according to an index which excludes nuclear weapons from its calculations. And Israel has state of the art weaponry both of its own manufacture and supplied to it by its Western backers. Israel has long been the top recipient of US military aid. In fact, over the past 60 years, Israel has been gifted a quarter of a trillion dollars of such funding, to which must be added collaborative military research and joint exercises.
So the remarkable thing about the current conflict is that for all the death and destruction inflicted on Gaza by Israel it has come off worse in this battle with the Palestinians than ever before.
The highly respected Jane’s defence and security journal has published an assessment of the struggle which will deeply discomfit Israel’s leaders entitled ‘Palestinian militants inflict substantial casualties on Israeli forces in Gaza’.
Jane’s reports that despite their computerised battlefield weaponry the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) have been out-maneuvered by the Palestinians resistance. The Palestinians, newly united in the Fatah-Hamas government, have benefited from training by Hezbollah and it’s use of a network of tunnels to engage Israeli forces in close urban combat.
‘The significance of the IDF death toll of 53 soldiers becomes greater when compared with the last major IDF air and ground offensive in Gaza - the three-week Operation Cast Lead from December 2008 to January 2009 - in which 10 IDF soldiers were killed, four of whom died in friendly fire incidents’.
More IDF soldiers have died in the days since this report was published.
In one of the few interviews published in the West with a member of the Palestinian resistance Jane’s report goes on to say:
‘A key element of Hamas's performance in this regard appears to be its emulation of the tactics of Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah. A senior official in Hamas's armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, speaking to …Jane's on condition of anonymity on 22 July, stated, "We have benefited from all the Iranian, Syrian, [and] Hezbollah tactical combat schools, and finally formulated [a] Qassam independent one that matches our situation and [leaves us] capable to respond to our enemy's challenge."’
The New York Times reports the same development: ‘The issue is not specifically the tunnels — which Israel knew about — but the way Hamas fighters trained to use them to create what experts in Israel are calling a “360-degree front.” “Hamas has changed its doctrine and is using the tunnels as a main method of operation,” said Israel Ziv, a retired general who headed the military’s Gaza division and its operations directorate. “This is something we learned amid the fighting.”’
Israel, perhaps to an even greater extent than the US, expects to fight wars in which only the enemy dies. The cost of the war to Israel is small enough in comparison to the barbarity unleashed on Gaza, but it is now large enough, and unexpected enough, to have affected Israel’s military strategy. The withdrawal of Israeli forces to the Gaza border in the last few days must, a least in part, be seen through this lens.
But if the Palestinian military resistance has caused Israel more problems than ever before these are as nothing compared to its difficulties on other fronts.
The global propaganda war
Israel has been losing the propaganda war for some time. The rise of the mass anti-war movement after 2002 altered the climate in which Israel’s occupation of Palestine was seen. Palestinian freedom was an essential demand of the movement in Britain and many other places from the start. It was on the placards of the movement in Britain on 15 February 2003 demonstration, still the largest in British history.
Moreover the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the manifest failures of the war on terror, meant the millions of people viewed the plight of the Palestinians through this lens - they opposed occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and so they came to oppose it in Palestine as well.
Long before the current conflict a BBC poll in 20 countries reported a two-to-one negative response to Israel. Only North Korea, Pakistan and Iran scored worse. In the current conflict even PR Week recognised that ‘Israel has lost the war of international public opinion’, citing in part the increased role of social media. Al Jazeera reports that the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used in more than 4 million Twitter posts, compared to only 200,000 for #IsraelUnderFire.
The level of public anger has now reached such a pitch that it is boiling over into much more widespread support for the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign. Even White House advisor Philip Gordon has warned that the US cannot protect Israel from ‘a tsunami’ of sanctions:
‘The United States will do all it can to fight boycotts and other delegitimization efforts. But in many of these realms, particularly outside the Security Council, our ability to contain the damage is limited and becoming more and more challenging. This is what American friends of Israel mean when they express concerns about the potential for Israeli isolation if peace talks do not succeed.’
Yet the brutality of Israel’s longest war against Gaza has, as I’ve argued elsewhere, eradicated the possibility of a long term peace process headed toward a two state solution on which US leverage has always depended.
In wide swathes of the public mind the Israeli state is now reaching depths of unpopularity only previously plumbed by Apartheid South Africa.
The diplomatic war
This ‘tsunami’ of opposition is having its effect on establishment politics. It is one of the clearest examples of long-term mass campaign work altering the terms of debate in establishment politics.
The clearest example is the radicalised attitude of the Latin American states to the Palestinian issue. This has a number of causes. Latin America has found an unparalleled modern period of freedom from US interference in the last decade as the US has become tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan and turned its attention to the Pacific. The Venezuelan revolution and radicalised movements in other countries have both benefitted from this situation and sharpened the political opposition to imperialism on the continent. The result is the current wave of expelled and recalled ambassadors, embassy closures and other measures aiming to give solidarity to the Palestinians. Bolivia, El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel.
But the effect is not limited to Latin America. It is universal if uneven. Even the British political establishment has seen a partial breach with cross-party support for Israel. Both the Liberal-Democrats and Labour leader Ed Miliband have criticised Israel. Of course they did so weakly and inadequately. But, rather like Dr. Johnson’s comment on seeing a dog walk on its hind legs, it’s not the fact that it is done badly that surprises, but the fact that it is done at all.
Even more remarkably the US relationship with Israel is under strain. This has in fact been true for some time. US reluctance to bomb Iran has long irritated Israel. This dates at least from the time when in 2008 George W Bush prevented an independent Israeli air-strike on Iranian nuclear reactors. In the current case the US knows that the ferocity of the Israeli attack, its refusal to stop illegal settlement building, its hostility to the Fatah-Hamas unity government is destroying the possibility of peace talks aimed at a two state solution. And without this on the table US leverage is reduced and ‘extreme solutions’ will gain in attractiveness.
In short, with the important exception of the military regime headed by El Sisi in Egypt, Israel is more diplomatically isolated than it has ever been. Paradoxically even the support of Egypt, fuelled by Saudi hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood in both its Egyptian and Palestinian forms, may end in the re-emergence of support from Hezbollah and Iran which had in part been undermined by differing attitudes to the Syrian civil war.
The new chaos in the Middle East
The isolation of Israel is crucial for reasons that are even more important than Palestinian freedom.
While the conflict in Gaza has raged large parts of the rest of the Middle East are descending into chaos. Libya must now be regarded as a failed state - a condition which even the tyrannical rule of Colonel Gadaffi could not produce but which Western intervention did. The post-war governments have always been divided, the armed gangs have never disappeared, regional conflicts have been exacerbated, and the country is awash with arms left over from Western intervention. And now the situation is so dire that civil war threatens and a Royal Navy ship is being sent to evacuate Britons.
In large areas of Iraq and Syria the old state has been collapsed by the advance of forces from the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (Isis). They are now fighting Kurds in Syria, destabilising the border with Turkey as Turkish Kurds go to the aid of Syrian Kurds. Only yesterday Isis attacked a military base in Lebanon.
This profound crisis is the immediate product of two failures.
The first is the failure of the ‘war on terror’. The implosion of Iraq and Syria are both products of Western intervention. In Iraq chaos results from the Western occupation and the ‘divide-and-rule’ sectarian policy the US and the UK used to try and prop it up. In Syria the Western courting and promotion of the Free Syrian Army helped to destabilise the original Syrian rising against Assad and created the vacuum into which Gulf State backed Isis forces then stepped.
The second failure is that of the Arab revolutions. Only in Tunisia has even a relatively stable parliamentary democracy emerged. Syria has become a proxy war, Egypt is engulfed in counter-revolution, Libya has been subverted by Western intervention and its after-effects.
In the longer term the imperial powers will not allow the destruction of the nation states created at the end of the First World War by the Sykes-Picot agreement to proceed without further intervention to secure their interests. Neither will the region’s peoples allow the destruction of their societies to proceed without mounting social struggles of their own.
This is why any progress made by the Palestinians, any weakening of Israel as an effective imperial force in the region, is a beacon of light on a darkening horizon.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.